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Van Gogh’s Ear IV – David Gascoyne, Surrealism and the Vanishing Muse

By Darran Anderson.

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A great deal has been written down the ages about the poetic muse: what it is, where it comes from and how to channel it. Most of this has been utter drivel, hyperbole to canonise poets as something akin to divine saints or soothsayers: the Mystic Megs of the literary world. A more interesting question arises when you consider not why or how the muse arrives but why, for some, it disappears? The writers who have it and lose it, the one-hit wonders, the child actors turned Baby Jane. Those who pissed away their inspiration through comfort, lost it through simple misfortune or had it stolen from them by madness.

A case in point is the late David Gascoyne whose poem And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis ranks alongside Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, the paintings of Conroy Maddox and Emmy Bridgwater and the visions of William Blake and Lewis Carroll as one of the greatest of that rarest of things; English Surrealism. A writer who connected briefly with genius and wrote a poem so monumental it casts a long shadow over everything else he wrote or failed to write. To say that Gascoyne struck lucky is unfair given the skill with which he constructed his poems but his legacy is one that suggests true inspiration is a fleeting mercurial thing.

At the time the poet began writing (his first collection Roman Balcony and Other Poems, which he’d later disown, was published in 1932 when he was sixteen), English verse was still vegetating in the musty gentleman’s club of Georgian poetry; aristocratically-detached, staid and passionless. In reaction to this, a new generation of poets had turned to Europe, less a continent than a crucible of ideas. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and with the rise of Fascism, political and social conflicts and advances in technology (flying machines, electricity, radio, the talkies) had fuelled wave after wave of art movements; Futurism, Constructivism, Cubism, Fauvism, Dada. Gradually the future was smuggled across the Channel and, through this symbiosis with Europe, the rictus corpse of English poetry was revived (as it had been briefly pre-First World War through the singular endeavours of plucky souls like Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound and their BLAST magazine – subtitled Review of the Great English Vortex).

Though he would be critically and commercially overshadowed by the emerging Pylon Poets (Auden, Spender, MacNeice and co), Gascoyne’s poetry underwent a similar transformation; the inertia of his juvenilia giving way to a poetry that was more brash, imaginative and which looked outwards to the world, a world brimming with possibilities. He wrote poetry inspired by Japanese art prints particularly the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Five Netsukes of Hottara Sonja), he experimented in the styles of Li Po and Rimbaud and temporarily exhibited an Expressionist love for the Apocalypse (Before Storm). A certain dark introversion still clung to his writing (“not any pillar of smoke / will guide in this / the wilderness of your room” – Plethora), a tell-tale sign of the depression that would later plague him but this was tempered by the urge to bask in the life and culture that was being lived elsewhere. In Germinal, he even rises to a something approaching a swagger, “An announcement of future marvels,” albeit one with a hint of Anglo-Saxon tongue-in-cheek reserve.

The real moment of change came with his introduction to the Surrealists in a bookshop in Charing Cross. Instantly smitten, Gascoyne dived into their methods and madness. Surrealism initially was a broad church with the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as its earthbound deity and the subconscious mind both its heaven and hell to be charted and explored (Freud himself was less than enamoured with his self-professed followers whom he regarded largely as a motley collection of chancers and madmen). Soon however, the movement would have a pope in the form of André Breton, a gifted polemicist but one with a streak of megalomania, who would propel the movement but also decimate it, excommunicating the movement’s most gifted artists at the drop of a hat and for the slightest infringement of his unwritten laws (Salvador Dalí for being obsessed with money -Breton called him by the anagram “Avida dollars” – and that other demented moustachioed painter Adolf Hitler, Antonin Artaud for refusing to join the Communist party, René Crevel for bisexuality which led to Crevel laying his head in his gas oven). But Breton the dictator, like the medieval popes, could be a generous patron, provided his anointed ones dedicate themselves to his cause. Breton demanded unyielding dedication that would put a Jesuit to shame, “Leave everything… Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future. Set off on the roads.”

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Gascoyne took him at his word. Moving to Paris, the teenager was welcomed with open arms into the group, befriending the painters Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and René Magritte (all of whom he would write poetic tributes to). Gascoyne responded in kind by writing A Short Survey of Surrealism which introduced many in England to the activities of those strange foreigners over the water with their melting clocks, mannequins and pipes that weren’t pipes. In 1936, he helped organise the London International Surrealist Exibition, at which he had to personally rescue the professional lunatic Dalí who had turned up wearing a deep-sea diving suit, a snooker cue and a pair of Russian wolfhounds and had almost suffocated (“I just wanted to show that I was plunging deeply into the human mind,” Dalí had explained after Gascoyne had freed him using a spanner).

More importantly, Gascoyne adopted the Surrealist device of automatism, writing in free-association in an attempt to unearth hidden truths supposedly submerged in the subconscious. By Breton’s revolutionary logic, this would create new ways of seeing the world and supposedly undermine the bourgeois system. Today a lobster telephone, tomorrow the collapse of global capitalism and the emancipation of the international working class! How exactly this would be achieved was skirted over but the mood of Trotskyite fervour was infectious. Gascoyne paid lip-service to radicalism, briefly joining the Communist Party, meeting up with Picasso as he was priming Guernica and broadcasting from Barcelona in support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War but it was to the art that Gascoyne was drawn rather than the politics. And the influence of the Surrealists had an invigorating effect on his writing, producing the highly-acclaimed collections Man’s Life is This Meat (1936) and Hölderlin’s Madness (1938).

By using free association, Gascoyne was able to escape the cliches of metaphor and similie and create fresh and bewildering even impossible juxtapositions, “losing head and heart / in the shopwindows of the wind” (Marrow). He was also able to escape the gentility (bred by academics) that is the curse of English poetry, both then and now. At times, his poetry verse channels the paintings of his comrades. The End is Near the Beginning is reminiscent of the ominous desolate piazzas of the elder proto-Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (“and if you forget the colour of my hands / you will remember the wheels of the chair / in which the wax figure resembling you sat / several men are standing on the pier / unloading the sea”).

The Very Image is a series of domestic-surrealist vignettes dedicated to René Magritte, minature word-sketches “arranged like waxworks / in model birdcages / about six inches high”. At times, remarkable sinister images rise to the surface, more dazzling than the poems that contain them; the “shipwreck on the sands” (Direct Response), “My little Jesus, my little Jesus… under your eyes will appear a whole Hornets nest” (Future Reference), “the beetle conspires to bring doom to the bridge / the night air is salt on the tongue” (The Last Head), “the face of the precipice is black with lovers… mirrors write Goliath’s name upon my forehead / while the children are killed in the smoke of the catacombs / and lovers float down from the cliffs like rain” (the latter Salvador Dali-dedicated poem eerily prescient of what would soon overcome Gascoyne’s beloved Europe).

It must be said, the positives of Surrealism evident in Gascoyne’s work are balanced with the inherent weaknesses of the artform; the random images and descriptions formed from automatism when uncoupled from reality can resemble deep and meaningless gibberish and prevent any kind of possible emotional investment from the reader. Go too far into the baroque and you end up with the written equivalent of a nightmare of Liberace’s or some godless hour-long Emerson, Lake and Palmer organ solo. Things turn prog. And Gascoyne’s more outlandish flights of fancy are no exception; the world is not a better place for the existence of lines like “emotion-swollen bosoms rising, brew / intoxicating storm-broth for the night” or “By Omega… the clinging folds / of stalagmatic foliage lachrymose / hung from the lofty crypt”. But when Gascoyne gets it right there are moments of sheer brilliance. And the Dream is the Seventh Dream of Isis is his longest sustained moment in the sun.

To dissect a poem is the surest way of destroying it, nothing survives an autopsy. Best leave that to the teachers and critics. The only way to appreciate the power and scope of And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis is simply to read it in it’s entirety. What is evident from reading it is the curious fact that all those isms of the early 20th Century, of which Surrealism was but one dazzling element, remain exciting because they’ve largely never been implemented on these shores. Their purveyors may be long dead but their means remain alive with potential. How rich a culture there would be here had they been widely embraced as only lone figures like Gascoyne had dared to do. There is more happening in the single poem And the Seventh Dream… than in the entire life’s work of some more highly-esteemed poets. In form, it resembles less other poetry than the innovative cinema and art of the time; there’s the kinetic collage and collision of sights and sounds that recalls Dziga Vertov‘s stunning Man with a Movie Camera, the revelling in the sacred and the profane that bursts from the work of Luis Buñuel and the disconcerting sexually-charged work of Balthus (“teach children to sin at the age of five / to cut out the eyes of their sisters with nail-scissors / to run into the streets and offer themselves to unfrocked priests / teach insects to invade the deathbeds of rich spinsters”).
There are references to St Francis and Alice and of course Isis, the mother of the Egyptian Gods and protector of the dead and the poor, and bastardised tributes to his future enemy Nietzsche in the Zarathustrian images (“a man is walking a tightrope covered with moths”) and his forefather Arthur Rimbaud (“and the time of earthquakes is at hand”). And yet, there is nothing truly like And the Seventh Dream… for it’s wild acceleration of images both arcane and modern, religious and gloriously obscene (Gascoyne recognised the psychosexual element – the unspoken erotica of the Sacred Heart, the Passion of the Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Ecstacy of St Theresa and the death of St Sebastian- always inherent in Catholicism),

“today is the day when the streets are full of hearses…
when the doors fall off their hinges in ruined cathedrals
when hosts of white birds fly across the ocean from America…
the reservoirs are full of human hair…

she was standing at the window clothed only in a ribbon
she was burning the eyes of snails in a candle
she was eating the excrement of dogs and horses
she was writing a letter to the president of france…

when an angel writes the word TOBACCO across the sky…
there is an extraordinary epidemic of tuberculosis in Yorkshire…
we rejoice to receive the blessing of criminals
and we illuminate the roofs of convents when they are hung…”

Gascoyne wrote other epics, flawed ones without the tumbling mad glory of And the Seventh Dream… but again containing moments of the sublime when he truly goes for broke. The Symptomatic World reads like a response to the Futurist’s spirited celebration of the mechanical age which had decayed into Fascism, offering a vision of modern ennui in its place, “A world at last as empty as my mirror / yet full of coach-horses and sails of ships / and vocal clocks all calling: this way home… and machines lean out of the windows to record the number of their footsteps.”
Phantasmagoria continues the transfixing melancholy of his world-view, “these scattered trees make the passers-by turn pale / then hurry home to disinfect their wells / they glitter like the dust of poisoned stars / and hypnotise the gaze of the last birds still to remain… thinking of the frozen music in the eyes of statues / of the brutal naked beauty of a surgical machine.”

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For all the promise of the modern age, things were falling apart. Gascoyne’s brother poet Lorca was shot and buried in an olive grove. Barcelona fell to Franco’s fascists. Nanking to the Japanese. Czechoslovakia would be next. Then Poland. Then France. Gascoyne’s verse noticably changes in response to the events going on all around him but not in the expected way. It becomes pastoral, filled with descriptions of valleys and winter gardens as if he’s desperately trying to take comfort in simple pleasures, in nature and in faith. You sense he’s writing about these things as if trying not to think about what is really happening. Every bucolic poem of his contains a sense of apprehension, even disbelief about the horror of his times, not in what is said but what is avoided (“our weak hearts dulled by the intolerably loud / commotion of this tragic century” – Mountains). In the poems, there’s a gripping sense of unease, the sense that nature is not picturesque but diseased and terrible, a mix of beauty and decay, the stuff of Trakl and Munch, “the mists which swim down from the icy heights / and hide the gods who wander on the mountainsides at noon… and the black cypresses strained upwards like the sex of a hanged man” (Figure in a Landscape).

For Gascoyne, there would be little comfort or solidarity from his allies in the Surrealist fraternity. The notoriously temperamental Breton read his latest works and had him promptly expelled for what he perceived as a truce with Christianity, ambushing him at a meeting in a Montmartre café, accusing the poet of being, bizarrely, a Stalinist and, with slightly more substance, a Catholic (a particular bête noire of the militantly atheist Breton who’d once said, “Everything that is doddering, squint-eyed, infamous, sullying, and grotesque is contained for me in this single word: God”). In the face of personal collapse and the onslaught of history, Gascoyne had sought refuge in the apparently safe harbour of faith. With Misere and Other Poems, he wrote his own version of the Messiah’s Requiem. Breton may have been onto something regarding a quiet conversion (as similarly Sartre would later in his feud with the great Albert Camus) but it’s not quite that simple, Gascoyne was no straight born-again convert but was a troubled soul who struggled to believe in something he suspected to be a falsehood but which he had to believe in, “because the depths / are clear with only death’s / marsh-light, because the rock of grief / is clearly too extreme for us to breach/ deepen our depths / and aid our unbelief.” This is a man who once wrote, “the poet’s job is to go on holding on to something like faith, through the darkness of total lack of faith… the eclipse of God.” His version of Ecce Homo is no exhibition of Vatican kitsch, rather it’s the obscene horror of Grünewald’s Christ (from The Isenheim Altarpiece) delivered with the matter-of-factness of a newsreel, “and on his either side hang dead / a labourer and a factory hand / or one is maybe a lynched Jew / and one a negro Negro or a Red / coolie or Ethiopian, Irishman / Spaniard or German democrat… our about-to-be / bombed and abandoned cities stand.”

Judged unfit for military service (though he briefly served as a ship’s cook), Gascoyne was spared the horrors of the Second World War firsthand but everyone, in some sense, was affected. More and more, the War-to-be and then the War-that-is invades his work, in the increasing presence of unremitting bleakness set in a backdrop of country parks, near-nervous breakdowns whilst contemplating trees and rivers. Gascoyne took solace in amphetamines which only served to ravage his nerves further and he yearned to return to Paris, an impossibility with the forces of the Third Reich marching through the Arc de Triomphe and his former comrades now exiles scattered to the four winds. In An Autumn Park, “dark suffocates the world.” Farewell Chorus contains a plea for sanity ending in haunted resignation, “farewell to the few and to the many; for tonight / our souls may be required of us; and so we say Adieu.” The warning of Shelley’s sublime Ozymandias is resworn in Spring MCMXL “Babylon the Great is now but dust” but no-one is listening. The inexcapable reality, the eveyday terror, is revealed in A Wartime Dawn “while early guns on Norway’s bitter coast / where faceless troops are landing, renew fire / and one more day of the War starts everywhere.” And in Snow in Europe – Christmas 1938 “but when the great thaw comes / how red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!” Ruins and helmets, fires “and the poison of the news” and “scraps of sky decaying in the sockets of a dead man’s stare” occur again and again amidst walks in hillsides and glades and sleepy shires, these things that would be lost, the things he clings to in Oxford: A Spring Day, “slim spires, hope-coloured fields: these belong to no date.” The manic collage of Elsewhere further reports “of ruined palaces: the roar / of cannon-mouths… the mouths of printing-presses, megaphonic maws / of the possessed and the psychotic,” the terrible new world being born and the old one slipping away.

After the War, Gascoyne went on to write notable poems – tributes to Mozart, Hart Crane, the Zodiac, the Second Coming, Venetian nocturnes and cabaret songs and a last great work before the silence; Night Thoughts, a lengthy “radiophonic poem” featuring choirs and the sound of the Tube,

“If stars are visible at all, they’re but a sprinkling of pinpricks
Blurred into insignificance by the brilliance on the ground,
Where the City round me celebrates the triumph of the brain
Of man over his darkness, in the effervescent blaze
Of a commerce-sponsored carnival of multi-coloured bulbs…

Friends, fellow beings, you are not strangers to us. We are closer to one another than we realise. Let us remember one another at night, even though we do not know each other’s names.”

Gascoyne wrote moving elegies for his departed friends Paul Eluard and Roger Roughton. He raged against writers block (Apologia and The Writer’s Hand) but it was a tendency to overdose on too many classical allusions, too many grand themes in capitals that dragged his work down. That and the catastrophic periods of depression following his father’s death, that saw him repeatedly hospitalised. He had intermittent periods of mania during which he demanded to address Charles de Gaulle and tried to break into Buckingham Palace. Mostly there was silence and obscurity ironically at the time when his style of writing, once so solitary, was resurfacing in the surreal lyrics of mid-period Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett and in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (it’s arguable that this unassuming poet in his immaculate suit with bow tie was one of the unlikely precursors to the Beats and late 60′s psychedelia). “A poet who wrote himself out when young and then went mad” was Gascoyne’s own assessment. Despite shaking off his addiction to speed, the poet struggled with his mental health for the rest of his life (the attractive myth of the tortured artist being a lie when in most cases – the great archtype Vincent Van Gogh included – madness obstructs and erodes the creative capacity) and was ultimately saved by the love of a good woman (a nurse called Judy Lewis who had coincidentally read a poem of his September Sun to the patients at Whitecroft Hospital, an asylum on the Isle of Wight, not realising he was amongst them). Gascoyne was fortunate enough to live to see his work rediscovered and heralded by new generations of writers including Iain Sinclair and Aidan Andrew Dun and his lost collections be reprinted by Enitharmon Press. His work, though rightly respected, never regained its greatness. But then again he had it. For a moment, against all the odds, he was one of the few who possessed true greatness. That it dissipated, was worn out or burned all up, is of no consequence. When he wrote And the Seventh Dream…, he’d already won.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer and 3:AM’s poetry editor. He has just completed a novel entitled The Ship is Sinking and his poetry chapbook Tesla’s Ghost is forthcoming this year from Blackheath Books. He is now working on a second novel. He is the Pete Best of the Offbeat Generation.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 25th, 2009.